Mark 4:26-34 “Shrubs, Birds and Bodies”
June 15, 2012 – Caitlin Trussell
New Beginnings Church at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility
Mark 4:26-34 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” 30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” 33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
When I was a kid there was a huge fad in jewelry that many Christians wore. It was mustard seed jewelry. There was a tiny yellow seed sitting loosely inside a tiny glass ball. I’m pretty sure I had a pair of mustard seed earrings and my sister may have had a bracelet but my memory as it relates to my sister’s jewelry is a little hazy. The point of this jewelry was to remind us that great things were possible from the tiniest drip of faith. And while this is true and there are many Bible verses that inspire us with that idea, I would invite us to read today’s text carefully before we jump on that familiar train of interpretation. I think these two parables are saying something more.
Parables are more than analogy or fable. Parables reveal things, they flip the standard line over on its head and they are subversive and powerful. They have a kick to them. When we don’t feel that kick, that “Aha” moment, we’re probably missing something. And, surprise, surprise, they can be super funny. The mixing together the things of daily life into the power of parable stirs the hearer into different ways of being.
The first parable says that the Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seeds, they grow without tending and “he does not know how.” Part of this parable is about knowing or, more accurately, the lack of knowing. There are people who are not me that can describe the phases of plant growth from seeds into plants into grain but this parable makes me wonder if they “know how.”
And then the farmer is able to bring in this harvest without knowing how it came to be. This deep mystery is the set-up for the mustard seed:
“[Jesus] also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
This mustard seed is not of the jewelry variety – a lovely, yellow, round, tiny ball. This is a black speck – one that you might mistake for a bit of dirt on your cheek. It is completely unremarkable. But this mustard seed grows into an invasive shrub. The text today says the greatest of all shrubs.
Now there’s a goal; to be able to lay claim to being the greatest of all shrubs. This last week I’ve had a chance to talk about this text with people who come from different parts of the country and everyone could name the invasive plant that causes problems in their area. Plants with names like kudzu, tamarisk and toadflax were described with all the damage they can do as they spread and then spread some more. The original hearers of this parable would have laughed out loud to hear the Kingdom of God compared to the mustard seed. Like a good South Park episode, it would have been funny in that way that is also offensive – shocking them into laughter while making people think.
So the mustard seed goes to work. Growing and spreading and becoming the greatest of shrubs that has branches large enough to shade the nesting birds. Earlier in this chapter of Mark, Jesus tells a parable that doesn’t leave birds in a very good light. Birds are not a friend to the seeds in this earlier parable. They are the undesirables. And yet, here they are, just a few parables later, sitting on the branches in the shade. And the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed growing into the greatest of shrubs that shade even the birds.
Why might Jesus have told this parable in this way? In the previous chapter in Mark, the religious leaders had already begun plotting with the politicians to destroy Jesus. So the parables are speaking into their threat. They know that this person is shaking up the very order in which they operate and their option as they see it is to destroy it. Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed, foreshadowing that the seemingly fragile thing is going to be so vast that even the birds who threaten will be dependent on it.
It is important to pause here so that we understand our location in the Kingdom of God by first understanding Jesus’ location. God coming in a body, in the person of Jesus, shifts reality in a new direction for us. Jesus coming in a body makes space for all bodies to be redeemed, for all bodies to be made new, to be created good. As Paul says in 2nd Corinthians, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view…So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” This is an announcement of what Jesus Christ has done and is doing. Translating out of the original Greek on this would be better stated, “So if anyone is in Christ, A NEW CREATION!” There is no lead in, no verb necessary, just BAM! “A NEW CREATION!”
The Kingdom of God, through Jesus Christ, invades the very ways in which we order our lives, invades the very ways in which try to manage our fragile selves, and speaks the truth of our fragility and our need for God. Jesus Christ, names our fragile selves – the ways we screw up, the ways we see God as a threat to our security and the ways we work against God – and then within us plants a new creation. Jesus, the living Christ, sends the Kingdom in and through us as he loves us enough to forgive us and he loves us enough to make us new.
Thanks be to God!